Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 30

     Sitting at a traffic light on the way home from the revival, Old Man Cordin flicked the edge of the orange card with the tip of his fingernail. His wife didn't have a card, since as she'd said, "What do we need with more than one? Heck, we do everything else together except go to the bathroom, don't we?" He looked at the salmon colored card. It was blank. He turned it over. In the upper left hand corner—printed in black ink—was one word, set in a typestyle that was an incredibly poor imitation of handwritten script:

            Chance
And underneath it, set in plain block letters:

Make General Repairs
On All Your Property

     Next to that was a simple line drawing of a mustachioed man astride the roof of a house, wielding a hammer while wearing a top hat, holding a cane, and reading from a book entitled HOW TO FIX IT. Though it didn't look or read much like what either of them envisioned a prayer card to be, it did seem like a pretty good idea, for though they'd been considering fixing up the store for quite some time, what they'd been sorely lacking was the impetus.

     "If a prayer card can't steer us in the right direction, what can?" Old Man Cordin asked his wife on their way home. "I say we start from the front of the store and work our way back."

     Bright and early Monday morning a sign painter would be standing on the sidewalk in front of the store eyeballing the front window. Old Man Cordin had just given him his instructions: repaint the sign as it originally was, but add two new lines beneath it:

New and Used
Flatware and Silver Service

     The sign painter suffered from what was, in his chosen profession anyway, a major handicap. For while a diesel mechanic, assembly line worker, or beautician might readily find ways to work around the problem, a dyslexic sign painter might as well hang a placard on his back saying: Job Watned.

     It's questionable whether fate guided his hand or history followed his lead, but no sooner would he finish painting the first of the new lines than the floor of the display window split in two, throwing his legs out from under him and sending him down to the hard concrete floor of the basement where he landed smack on his ass. What would later be diagnosed as a broken coccyx would lay him up for six weeks, the entire time being spent flat on his stomach on the grossly uncomfortable living room couch because he was unable to negotiate the stairs. He was, however, perfectly able to talk to his lawyer on the phone, a man who would make very sure that the newly painted dyslexic line on Old Man Cordin's sign became prophetic:

     Cordin's Jewelry
     Watches * Rings * Gold Bought And Sold
     Precious and Semi-precious Jewels
     New and Sued

     * * * * * *

     Hanner's father sat in the folding chair under the tent looking at his watch for the 4,325th time that hour. To him patience was less a virtue than it was a large neon sign with a moving arrow pointing out those who had nothing worthwhile to do with their lives.

     "This certainly was a far cry from dance class," he told his daughter. "Are you ready to go?"

     Hanner nodded her head quickly, her hair bouncing up and down over her eyes. She would have said "yes", except she was afraid that if she opened her mouth nothing more than an elongated groan would be able to issue forth, for she was deep in the throes of her first experience with the already-despised-but-here-to-stay menstrual cramps. She had very seriously considered heeding the Quite Reverend's mass invitation to join the infirmed at the side of the stage, but decided that not only weren’t cramps very high up on the faith healing Top-10, but she wasn't yet—and for that matter might never be—at the level of emotional development where she wanted a large crowd of predominantly strangers to know that she was suffering this pubescent punishment.

     Hanner and her father stood up and sidled along the row, forcing people to either stand or throw their legs sideways to let them by. Mr. Myana dropped the orange card he'd randomly selected on an empty seat as they walked by. It read:

Chance
BANK PAYS YOU
DIVIDEND OF $50

     Next to that was a drawing of the same mustachioed man with his feet up on a desk blowing smoke rings. Had Hanner's father read the card he would have laughed, for while the concept was dead on, the card was sorely lacking in accuracy. By about four zeroes to be exact. For what Hanner's father liked to think of as an undeclared dividend, the Penultimate National Bank would more correctly label as embezzlement; and what he had begun doing for the express purpose of elevating his lifestyle would ultimately lower it to the very simple needs of jail life.

     Hanner, on the other hand, put her card in her pocket where she wouldn't find it for nearly a week, finally discovering it during a pre-wash pocket check along with forty-three cents, two sticks of Dentyne, an unturned-in hall pass, a safety pin, and two lint-covered Midols. The card was yellow and had the words Community Chest typeset in that same pseudo-script, while underneath was printed:

FROM SALE OF
STOCK
YOU GET
$45

     Next to it was a drawing of the mustachioed man entangled in a tentacle of ticker tape.

     Remembering the three shares of stock her grandfather had given her for her last birthday, Hanner would look through the tiny print of the stock tables in the next morning's newspaper searching for the coal company's listing. On a whim, she decided to sell it. For $45 after commission. She invested the money in the stock of a small chemical company which had, unbeknownst to her, developed a virtually indestructible dark black pencil lead which cost less than graphite and never wore down. The patent would be quickly purchased by the Parker Pen Company, which would go on to pay an exorbitant amount of money to purchase all outstanding shares of the company, resulting in a quick 2000% return to Hanner. She then invested that money in a stock which every broker who owned a telephone considered to be the ultimate dog: Rabid Canine Concepts, the developer of the Silent Vigil Foam Rubber Wind Chimes. The wind chimes became the hottest selling novelty since the Pet Rock, causing the company's stock to quadruple in four months, further propelling the hot streak that would ultimately pyramid Hanner's three-share birthday present into holdings worth over $10 million by the time she was twenty-four years old.

     * * * * * *

     Crunchy Castleton spent the entire tent meeting watching and rewatching mental slow motion instant replays of the morning's lovemaking with Nina. By the time the Quite Reverend was kneeling by the stage gathering up the spilt collection, Crunchy had used up virtually every speck of will power she had trying not to hold Nina's hand or put an arm around her and draw her close. The truth be known, it was only Nina's celebrity that stopped Crunchy, she'd obviously never cared what anyone called her or thought about her before.

     "Shall we?" she asked Nina, exaggeratedly stretching her arms so she could brush her hand across her friend's shoulder without attracting any undue attention.

     "Shall we what?" Nina replied with a mischievous smirk.

     An orange card fell out of Crunchy's hand and fluttered to the floor. She'd taken the card purely out of instinct; it was passed to her, so she took it. After all, being an avowed psychic, she needed a prayer card about as much as she needed to pay $20 at the sign of the big red hand to have her palm read by Sister Sophia. Crunchy leaned over to pick up the orange card, stopping as she was bent over to read it.

Chance
PAY
POOR TAX
OF $15

     As she looked at the drawing of the mustachioed man shrugging his shoulders with his pockets turned inside out, she suddenly felt a wave of guilt come over her, not because she felt she'd been having unclean thoughts during the service—for no one thinks their own thoughts to be impure—but rather because she hadn't put a donation in the Maxwell House coffee can which had been passed along her row.

     "I'll be right back," she told Nina, clutching her purse as she stood up.

     She walked to the side of the stage where the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III was scooping money from the ground and putting it in the collection containers. She opened her purse and took out $15.

     "This is for the poor," she told him, dropping the bills into an empty Hawaiian Punch can.

     "The Apostle Paul said, 'Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity'," he replied without even glancing up.

     Crunchy looked down at the Quite Reverend, busily picking coins out of the grass like lint from a shag rug. She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet, taking all of her money and dropping it into a red and white striped Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. She opened the change purse shaped like a slice of watermelon and emptied the coins into the container. Then she knelt next to the Quite Reverend and began filling the bucket with spilled money.

     This wouldn’t be the last time Crunchy picked up after the Quite Reverend. Far from it. For the next eight years she would be the Quite Reverend's indispensable aide-de-camp, making certain both his TV show and his live appearances ran smoothly. After the first two years—and his highly publicized and extremely messy divorce—she would become Mrs. John Joseph Matthew Paul III. Not to mention ridiculously wealthy.

     * * * * * *

     Nina stood by her chair watching Crunchy crawl around the grass, finally realizing that her friend intended on staying in the tent with the Quite Reverend until all of the offering had been retrieved. She went out to her car. While fishing around in her purse for her car keys—which like everything else she put in there immediately and without fail sank to the bottom—she came across her prayer card, an orange card with a drawing of the mustachioed man smoking a cigar, his worldly belongings wrapped in a bandanna which was attached to the end of his cane. Rather overdressed, this hobo who wore a top hat and a tuxedo jacket.

Chance
ADVANCE TO
ILLINOIS AVE

     When Nina arrived home she found a message to call her husband at his hotel in Las Vegas, a small, out of the way dive nowhere near the vicinity of the National Association of Broadcasters' gathering. It turned out her husband had taken a demo reel of her TV show with him and shown it to Roman Prince, the founder and despotic CEO of the eponymous Princely Productions, the world's foremost syndicator of TV shows, who liked what he saw. Especially the segment featuring Crunchy's interview.

     Within hours after calling her husband back a deal was struck whereby Nina would host a brand new syndicated talk show with her husband assuming the role of executive producer. Since the show would be filmed at Princely Productions' huge studio complex, Nina and her husband immediately put their house on the market and made the big move to Chicago.

     Within a year the show became the most watched syndicated show on TV, catapulting Nina into a two-year supernova career as America's foremost personality. As the flame died down the show settled into a very unfulfilling routine—not unlike her marriage—with the notable difference being that the show at least was still moderately successful.

     It would be eight years after the tent meeting—almost to the day—that Nina would once again have the opportunity to interview Crunchy, this time before a nationwide audience. When the Quite Reverend was diagnosed as a delusional paranoid schizophrenic—having unsuccessfully tried seven times during his final year out of captivity to have his name legally changed to Jesus Buddha Mohammed Nietzsche Joe Bob Christ III—Crunchy, who inherited control of his rather extensive holdings, donated it all to the Indian Guides, an obscure children's character-building organization which, not unlike the Boy or Girl Scouts, taught otherwise sophisticated spoiled suburban brats to live like a cartoon version of the American Indian making such an indelible impression on the youths that years later they would inflict the weekly meetings of the Indian Guides on their own offspring.

     After taping the show, Nina and Crunchy had dinner together at S'il Vous Plate, Chicago's trendy French-Korean restaurant of the hour. After dinner they returned to Crunchy's hotel room. The next morning Nina had her lawyer draw up the necessary divorce papers while she and Crunchy went house hunting. They would live together longer, and happier, than their two marriages put together.

     * * * * * *

     As soon as it became apparent that the tent meeting was all but adjourned, Miss Hellstrom headed straight for her car. Teachers don't put up with any more nonsense outside of the classroom than they do in it. She drove down Broad Street and found a parking space, and before getting out of the car took a compact from her purse and touched up her lipstick. Then, once on the sidewalk, she straightened her conservative summer weight suit and walked up to the door of the Nu-Life Career Placement office for the second time that day.

     Her hand grasped the tarnished brass door knob. It turned! She smiled just as she smacked into the door with a bang. She turned the knob again; it spun around, but the door wouldn't budge. She stepped back and scowled at the door, then kicked it hard, wincing as pain shot up her leg. Leaning against the building with one hand, she took off her shoe and rubbed her foot. This place was more trouble than it was worth.

     Gingerly slipping her foot back in its shoe, she opened her purse to search out a pen and a scrap of paper. Sooner or later everyone finds out it's not a good idea to stand up an English teacher, though most people discover this before they finish the seventh grade. She put the pen, which had "Johnson's Burger Bar - Home of the Pork Chop Sandwich" imprinted on the barrel, between her teeth. She pulled a small yellow card from her purse; it didn't have much room for writing, but after all, if an English teacher couldn't be concise, who could? She flipped the card over to make sure it wasn't anything she might need to keep—it was the prayer card she’d taken at the revival meeting. She looked at the drawing of the mustachioed man patting a nerd—who's name surely must have been Quincy—on the head while dropping two paltry coins in his hand. It read:

Community Chest
PAY
SCHOOL TAX
OF $150

     Miss Hellstrom shook her head, turned the card over, and proceeded to write the Nu-Life Career Placement people a scathing fifteen line note in a cursive script even an anal retentive would call small and constricted.

     After leaving the note wedged between the door and jamb, she got in her car and drove home. On the way, a strange, oddly familiar yet discomforting thought stuck in her mind like a piece of crushed red pepper from Ray’s Pizza glued to the back of her throat. When she got home she pulled out her pay check stubs for the past year, which she kept in chronological order in the top left drawer of the desk in the living room. She examined the first several stubs, then thumbed through a few more, slowly picking up speed until she was literally flipping through them. Each monthly check stub had a deduction for the United Teachers' Council Pension Fund in the amount of $150. She picked up a pen and made a note on a scratch pad to find out how well her contributions to the fund were doing, then put the check stubs away and took a long, hot bath.

     Come Monday, Miss Hellstrom began a personal inquiry that unearthed an incredibly convoluted cover-up involving virtually everyone connected with the local United Teachers' Council, the pension fund manager, and even the fund's trustees. Thanks to her persistence—and the enlisted aid of a young, hungry consumer issues reporter—the extent of the embezzlement and mismanagement of the now broke pension fund would be brought to light, culminating in the indictment of eight people on a total of seventy-two charges.

     As a result of this, the local United Teachers' Council no longer had any leadership, nor even a secretary for that matter. Miss Hellstrom, who had a very high profile at the time—not to mention the gratefulness and admiration of thousands of teachers—was unanimously elected to the position of president by the rank and file, which within a year would lead to her becoming national undersecretary, and less than a year after that, the president of the national office. The Nu-Life Career Placement counselors couldn't have done any more for her had they actually been more than a front for a local bookmaking operation.

 

Chapter 31 ]



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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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